The Book of Endless Sleepovers
by Henry Hoke
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017
Review by Cookie Dutch
Henry Hoke’s The Book of Endless Sleepovers is a text dealing with the space between. The space between genres, between identities, between the fantasy of childhood and the harsh reality of loss, where—as described in “Bottomless Pit”—“‘It’s a little bit night and a little bit morning.’ 4am, not dawn, but when day teases the edges of the world.” Interspace as dreamscape: populated not only with the innocence and nostalgia of childhood, but also the trials of adolescence, exploring the struggles of divorce, trauma, sexuality, identity, and loss.
Like most of Hoke’s work, The Book of Endless Sleepovers cannot be placed into the confines of genre. Autobiographical fiction and poetry are laced with the language of screenplays, advertisements, encyclopedias, and news headlines. Rather than eschewing the conventions of literary classifications, as experimental writing often attempts to, Hoke dismantles each genre, welding their conventions together in consistently surprising and innovative ways.
The most stable narrative in the book is the friendship and romance of two young boys, Tom and Huck. Their world, at its purest, is as simple as snow forts, bike rides until sunset, and chocolate chip pancakes the morning after a sleepover. Around these common associations of childhood wistfulness, Hoke offers a candid and unembellished depiction of growing up that is anything but juvenile.
In “Castrati,” Hoke departs from a more quintessential portrayal of childhood. A boy that goes by both “H” and “Young Mooney” is cast in a movie and finds himself marooned among adults, thrown into mature experiences that leave him curious and disconcerted. By taking on the language of screenplay, Hoke creates a disturbing distance from the previously traditional narrative. As a reader, I felt immobile, shoved into the position of an observer, a bystander to puberty and the struggle of sexuality, gender identity, and the fear of self-discovery. This serves as a turning point, moving from the more digestible coming-of-age narrative into the darker, more warped side of childhood and adolescence.
Hoke recognizes the credulity of the reader, using it to his advantage as he leads them through whimsical stories of dead cats floating under the pool cover, “exploding Henry Hoke dolls,” and death being walked on a leash like a pet. The shifts may seem jarring or confusing—a speaker standing on a bridge overlooking a city, followed by an advertisement for “Girls Who Look Like Guys You Know Escorts”—but Hoke handles each transition with such fluidity that I gladly left behind logic and my personal notions of craft. No matter how outlandish and bizarre Hoke’s stories may seem, each contributes to the collective narrative of the book, the mischievous pneuma of Hoke’s childhood.
Despite his ability to jump from story to story, Hoke recognized the need to come back to Tom and Huck. He does so at the perfect moment, flooding the page with loss and well-earned tragic reminiscence:
There’s no way you can prepare yourself for the last lunchtime.
Tom and Huck turn the corner to a quiet spot and sit outside. Huck only wants iced coffee, while Tom wants a beer. They both get what they want.
They order chocolate chip pancakes. Just like Huck’s mom used to make in the unearthed mornings after sleepovers, they both remember, and say. Tom doesn’t know that Huck’s mom had died and Huck is not going to tell.
Despite the sense of finality the end of each vignette provides, Hoke’s words are constantly alluding to what’s next, what’s left unsaid. For every sentence on the page, there are paragraphs of ghost texts, absent presences. The book is amorphous and unafraid, shifting its form, characters, and narrative in order to move through the terrifyingly nostalgic land of childhood into adolescence, pulling you into a sleepover in which “Nobody wants to fall asleep first.”